What Level Are You Preparing Your Athletes To Play At?

PHOTO CREDIT: mylifeoneframeatatime.blogspot.com

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

—Albert Einstein

Think about this quote for a second and ask yourself, does this thought apply to the way you develop an athlete?

To borrow a thought from writer/teacher/coach/mentor, Dick DeVenzio, I continually ask athletes, to ask themselves, the following question: Are you practicing in proportion to your aspirations?

We often have ambitions that are incongruent with our efforts—knowingly or unknowingly. By way of example, the athlete whose stated goal is to make it to NBA or WNBA, yet only works (individually) on their game sporadically throughout any given week is sabotaging their own success. Bigger than that, their goal does not match their effort. Perhaps, they don’t know ‘what it takes,’ or alternatively, are just lying to themselves. I don’t know. That’s an individual thing. Either way, to me, that’s inline with Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Are You Insane Too?

As a coach, when was the last time you stopped to ask yourself:

  • At what level am I preparing my athletes to play at?
  • Are the strategies, schemes and tactics I’m employing geared toward winning the next game (i.e. championship, division title, get your record to .500 for the first time in school history)? Or, win in the future (i.e. developing an athlete’s skills set – physically, mentally, technically and socially – for performance beyond the current year/team)?

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, shares that in his research the ability to ‘confront brutal facts’ is integral for anyone – person, team or organization – to move from good to great. We ask athletes to confront brutal facts all the time:

  • “Sorry, you haven’t made the team.”
  • “You won’t be dressing tomorrow because you didn’t attend all your classes.”
  • “I can’t put you in the game if you don’t improve on the defensive end.”
  • …and so, on.

Outside of high score wins, what are the brutal facts that all coaches should be held to? Especially if they’re working with basketball players in their development years?

The latter question opens up a Pandora’s Box as there are a litany of implications within the word “development.” For starters, what age are athletes considered developmental?

You have to answer that question. Because, to me, the answer dictates the WHAT and HOW of your athlete interaction and development – both on and off the court.

True Story

I was at the University of West Florida this past summer chatting with a group of coaches. One commented that it wasn’t his “job to develop.” He said his job was “to win games.”

Fair enough, I thought. That statement, I think, is true depending on the level you’re coaching at.

My next question followed: “At what level do you coach?”

His response: “15 year old boys!”

(Gulp! My inner voice: “Whut the…!?”)

Outer voice (feigning calmness): “Let me share a story with you…” I went on to share with him and the rest of the group that in all the NBA Draft workouts that I’ve been privy to, a coach, scout or GM making comments to the effect that “…these kids have no ‘fundamental’ skills.” (Note: These are top draft picks they were talking about!)

They went on to ask themselves and each other: “What are they doing in college?”

Ironically, over the years, in my interactions with many college coaches, and in reading statements online, I’ll hear/read them muse that the kids that are showing up on their doorstep and have no skills. They ask themselves and each other: What are they doing in these high school and AAU programs?

And so, I turned back to the coach who claimed it wasn’t his job to develop; allowing him to fill in the blank. At this point he knew where I was going.

I said, so if you too do not feel that it’s your ‘job’ to develop skills, then we must turn to the elementary-aged coach. To that end, I said, that person is a volunteer parent who is only coaching because if they don’t their kid will not have a team to play on.

Point illustrated, or least that’s what I inferred from the look on his face.

I guess that brings me back to the question: At what age are athletes still considered developmental?

Many feel that science-y types have articulated it in the Long-Term Development Model.

I have my opinion on it. I encourage you to have a philosophy around this issue that drives your school’s program… state/provincial mandate or national development model. Base it, though, on the wealth of evidence-based research available out there.

I won’t argue with wanting to win in the moment IF it has been communicated to the athletes the level you’re preparing them to play at. As coaches, if we’re going to ask them to play their hearts out for us and sacrifice much, then the least we can do is share the brutal facts with them on the level we’re setting them up for and allow them to choose. I have a feeling that some athletes would choose otherwise if they knew that we could be sabotaging their future ambitions.

Are your goals inconsistent with their aspirations?

Culture Is Held In Conversations

In a previous blog post, I shared a thought on culture to the effect that, “…culture is held (or staged) in conversations. Culture is defined then, and lived, in the way we talk about ourselves and each other; it’s found in our interactions.”

One of the things that jumped out to me this summer in working with athletes who were looking to affect change in their team or teammates, is that they were talking about culture. Coaches are having the same conversation as they look to turn a losing program around, or as they look to replace the leadership that a great leader or senior class provided. As it relates to transforming the mentality of a nation, as we’re endeavouring to do in Canada, it all centres on culture as well.

I’ve been part of some bad teams over the years and toiled actively with transforming that environment. I’ve also been a part of some winning teams and winning organizations too. How people speak about themselves, each other – especially when a coach, senior administer, board member is not around – is the culture of that team or organization.

Do what you may… say what you want… but the culture of your team will determine where you net out as a group.

At an athlete’s level, the culture of the team is not defined by what takes place in practice in the huddle at centre court when everyone says “Team!” Instead, it’s on a long bus ride after a tough loss and the athlete and their inner voice are toiling with what has taken place and the decisions the coach made. How they see things and interpret the course of events begins to define the culture of the team. Or, think about the conversations that take place between two or more athletes in the hotel room when no one else is around. What they say about their teammates and coaches in those moments define the culture of the team.

Great leaders actively influence those conversations. Words, thoughts, translates into action.

I remember speaking with some European coaches and their words were to the effect, “I had the privilege of working with…,” or “I contributed to the development of…” Contrast this to the words of a few Canadian coaches I spoke with recently who said, “The national teams took this player from me…,” or “They keep stealing players…”

Words are powerful.

How do you think either will influence the culture of the sport in their region, province/state, country?

One thing I’m still learning is to pay attention to where I place my attention. And, which words I use as they’re a reflection of who I am, what I believe and what I’m willing to stand up for.

A few years back, the NBA required us (team staff) to stop saying, “…going down to the D-League.” Instead, we were asked to say, “…going to the D-League.”

At the time, I thought it petty. Trivial. Micro-managing.

I understand otherwise now. Those two statements conjure up drastically different feelings about the same thing. The former implies a demotion, a step toward an experience that is less than.

They knew what they’re doing in the NBA. They were defining or redefining the athlete’s perspective about going to the NBA Development League. Changing the way people saw that experience by first altering how they see it and speak about it.

Wanna influence an environment? Be a leader for positive change? Then be mindful of how you speak about something. When you change where you put your attention, you begin to see things differently. You then feel differently about that experience or interaction. In turn, what you do will change. And, ultimately, what you get, the results, with time, will also be transformed.

Great things can happen when no one cares who gets the credit.


Do you place the same expectation of continual growth on yourself as you put on your athletes? What do you do to grow as a coach? What people or experiences have been most influential on your coaching style?